Paddy Ryan tells the story behind one of Picasso’s most important works. The painting was inspired by the destruction of the Basque town of Guernica by the Nazi air force during the Spanish Civil War.


Over the past year or so, we have read and heard a lot about the brutality and violence of the civil war in this country. While civil wars by their nature manifest all that is ugly in humanity, the Spanish civil war in the 1930s was particularly vicious and it lasted over four years.

Dreadful things happened on both sides of the conflict but Pablo Picasso – a Spaniard in exile – made sure that the world would not be allowed to forget one horrendous event that might have been overs-hadowed.

This was the slaughter of an April evening when April airs were abroad and German planes dropped thirty-one tonnes of bombs on the Basque town of Guernica in northern Spain. The reason for German involvement was that basically it was giving a helping hand to the Francoist side.

Local records claim 1,684 people died in this vicious bombing on 26 April, 1937, on the little town of less than 10,000 people, but considerably more that evening because it was market day. The Francoist authorities put the number at much less. Effectively, the number of fatalities depends on the narrator.

Picasso, outraged at the slaughter of innocent people, depicted the immediate aftermath in what is, perhaps, the most shocking anti-war painting ever executed. His Guernica in black and white portrays fragmented women, men, children and animals, with limbs scattered like debris on a seashore of a wrecked town in flames.

You can almost get the smell of burning flesh eighty plus years after the event. The painting was only returned to Spain after Franco’s death in 1975. It is now a top visitor attraction in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

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